The Ones Who Walk Away: Social Justice, Shame, and the Church

Joyous! How is one to tell about joy? How describe the citizens of Omelas?

[…] They were not naive and happy children – though their children were, in fact, happy. They were mature, intelligent, passionate adults whose lives were not wretched. O miracle! But I wish I could describe it better. I wish I could convince you. Omelas sounds in my words like a city in a fairy tale, long ago and far away, once upon a time […] A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer; this is what swells the hearts of the people of Omelas, and the victory they celebrate is that of life […]

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window […] In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits haunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come.

[…] They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

[…] At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all […] They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

–selected excerpts from Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” describes a fairytale-like society called “Omelas” where the people feel a frivolous happiness, contentment, and “magnanimous triumph” over life itself. But within this society, there is a singular child living in abject misery. The townspeople of Omelas occasionally visit the child. They internalize the message that this child’s condition is necessary for the happiness of Omelas, and they return to Omelas, ashamed but unchanged. Yet others see the child, feel shame, and they are changed—they walk away, away from Omelas, away into the darkness. And somehow they seem to know where they are walking.

Le Guin’s story won the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, with many readers interpreting it as an allegory about societal injustices that are seen but remain unaddressed. Reflecting on the fictional world of Omelas, I want to make two claims about social justice in the present reality of our own world: The first is that shame is the marker of an injustice. The second is that, if we want to fix what is broken, we must first know what un-brokenness, or wholeness, looks like. Therefore, despite a shameful history of ignorance towards social justice, if Christians live in the forgiveness of the resurrection of Christ, then we are not bound by shame, and are able to pursue an unparalleled level of wholeness defined by God’s perfect justice. And in this justice that demands action, I have hope.

Fundamentally, wherever there is injustice, there is shame. It’s a primal, distinctly human reaction to something wrong, an unbidden outcry that yells, “Something needs to be fixed!” We are uncomfortable because we feel responsible. The townspeople of Omelas see the child, and they feel shame. The simple existence of their happiness at the expense of this child is wrong, and they know it. Moreover, shame is also felt both collectively and individually. Since the Stockley verdict, I’ve felt shame, and it’s twofold – I’m ashamed our human society has collectively created a systemically unjust system that drives one human to kill another, and I am ashamed that, individually, I can observe this injustice and retreat, unchanged, to my privileged WashU bubble. We all live in St. Louis, and we are all aware of social injustices. We cannot deny that we have seen “the child.”

For the people of Omelas and for all of us today, sitting in shame is the first step towards change—after all, how can we pursue wholeness if we don’t first recognize how broken something is? And regarding social justice, the Christian church has a lot of shame to sit in. It is impossible to separate the responsibility of the Christian institution in the establishment and perpetuation of systems of oppression (this would take another essay to unpack). Christians justified imperialism and the erasure of indigenous people groups as “mission”; Christians embraced an economy built on slavery; Christians clung to a society that disenfranchised people based on race; and today, Christians celebrate leaders who dehumanize and oppress others. While I urge non-Christians readers to separate the Christian belief system from misguided practices and not to judge the Christian faith by the abuses of the Christian institution, I accept this collective guilt, and I am deeply ashamed. Christians should not minimize our complicity in the establishment of social injustices. We must sit in this shame to understand just how decisively we are condemned.

However, if we are to realize social justice, we cannot be paralyzed by shame. In “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, many townspeople saw the child and felt shame, and they returned to Omelas feeling guilty. But this guilt did not spur action. Guilt tells us that something is wrong, but to realize wholeness, we must know what “right” is.

A brief detour to illustrate why pursuit of wholeness is ultimately more constructive than wallowing in brokenness:

I have been directing an a cappella group here on campus for nearly three years now, but I have a secret: I have a terrible ear. What I mean is that I have deficiencies in correcting individual voices that are out of tune, which calls my role as Music Director into question. But as a music arranger, I know exactly how I want every individual note in my arrangement to sound. I have an intense vision of wholeness and “rightness” for every chord of every arrangement. From this perspective, I can tell when a chord is wrong simply because it does not live up to the vision of wholeness that I cling to in my imagination, and based off that vision, I tease out the components of the chord that are not quite right. Everything is in comparison to that standard of wholeness.

It’s easy to say something is wrong, but how much more powerful is it to say that something is right? This is one of the fundamental limitations of science and statistics. We can never “accept” a hypothesis, confirming its truth, but rather we can only “reject” or “fail to reject” a hypothesis, confirming or denying its failure. Wrongness is easy to prove. Rightness is a bit trickier. But this pursuit of rightness is powerfully motivating—it’s the same sentiment that many economists take towards asset-based community development, the same sentiment that psychologists describe as “positive reinforcement,” the same sentiment that reminds classroom teachers why they must affirm their students’ constructive behavior. Wrong only has meaning in comparison to what’s right.

Herein lies my central argument: Christians ought to be on the frontlines of social justice fights because we claim to know what justice truly is. Jesus’ ministry was characterized by outreach not to the elite but to the outcasts, the tax collectors, the widows, and the adulterers (literally turn to any page in the Gospels and you’ll see this). Simply, we are called by God to pursue systemic justice.

Isaiah 1:17 – Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Proverbs 29:7 – The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.

Proverbs 24:24-25 – Whoever says to the guilty, “You are innocent,” will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessings will come on them.

We are called to be Christ-like, which means pursuing systemic social justice. If we live in the reality of the resurrection of Christ, then we have the Spirit within us, continuously turning our hearts towards God, who is justice. It is irresponsible for us to see an injustice, to see “the child,” and to walk away, saying nothing but a hushed prayer that “God is sovereign and will take care of it.” What is more, if we live in the reality of the resurrection, then the shame we feel, both individually and collectively, has been shouldered by Christ. Not only did Christ bear our individual shame, but he bore our collective shame. Christ bore the collective shame of imperialism, of racism, of jingoism, of white silence, and of police brutality. And if we want to realize social justice and move out of shame, at some point, we’ll have to accept this forgiveness. Somehow.

Let me be abundantly clear—we should not ignore all that is wrong because we’re magically forgiven and free. How arrogant it seems for a Christian to talk about “hope” and “wholeness” in today’s reality of social injustice. Indeed, the Christian institution has a debt to society. Undoing systems of oppression are a part of realization of justice; fixing out-of-tune voices is essential to creating a well-tuned chord. Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who spent decades representing inmates on death row in the South and author of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Literature Just Mercy, cautioned a privileged audience that it’s not enough to “focus on the bright and shiny things” in our lives. Hope only has meaning when we are “dismantling injustice.” Or, as Desmond Tutu proclaimed, “My humanity is tied up in your humanity, for we can only be human together.” Our freedom does not mean much when so many people, people made in God’s image, remain chained.

But we have hope because we have something to run to, don’t you see? As Christians, we claim to be forgiven by the Creator of the universe—how can we not run after His heart with every fiber of our being? And undeniably, God’s heart is bent towards justice. I don’t claim to know what pursuit of social justice looks like operationally for a Christian (that’s another essay). I am simply urging Christians to own their individual and collective shame, and, after some time, to come to terms with forgiveness. I am establishing a framework in which Christians prioritize systemic wholeness because we hold such an intensely resonant vision of real justice that we simply cannot do otherwise. Sit in shame, yes, but paralysis is not an option. The stakes are too real, and the consequences for inaction are too human. If you see an injustice and you walk away, know where you’re walking. Or to Whom you’re walking. Lord, I pray that I might walk towards You in humility, hope, and forgiveness.

Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was, will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold […] Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. −2 Corinthians 3: 7-12; 17-18

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